I doubt somewhat that many folks will see this right away, what since there was an American holiday yesterday, and that’s where a lot of my readers hale from, but just in case we’re at part six of Interviewing Trey, which is remarkable when you consider that Interviewing Leather only went to part fourteen. How long will this one go? Hard to say at this juncture — but I doubt we’re halfway done..
With a little luck, this part will begin to highlight some of the real differences not only of scale but of operation. And maybe, just maybe, lead to justifying our title a bit more.
*** *** *** ***
The elevator was well appointed, just like the rest of the Jack O’Knaves’s insane casino. Faux wood paneling, brass bar along the inside, brass control panel, red LED display up above… Even an ad suggesting $7.11 steaks between 7 and 11 daily in the Card Sharp’s Cabaret. River took out a key ring attached to his belt by an extending brass chain, fitting the key into one of four locks at the bottom of the panel and turning. Mister River then pushed the top button — the buttons went from 1 to 24 with no 13th floor, but unlike most elevators 1 was at the top. And having hit 1, the elevator began to rise instead of descending. Mister River then turned the lock back and pulled out the key.
Not just underground — deep underground. Where the Hell were we?
The elevator stopped, and the Girl from Iponea began playing. I realized it was in a minor key. The door didn’t open. Mister River pushed a different key into the second of the locks and turned it. There was a ding and the music stopped. River removed the key and leaned slightly forward, putting a hand on the rail. There was a second ding and the elevator shuddered and moved forward.
That’s right. Forward. And it sped up pretty quickly. I stumbled back, caught by surprise, and hit the back wall. My back spasmed from the back of my neck down, as muscles that hadn’t been used in who knew how long complained with the impact.
Mister River had moved around, leaning back against the brass control panel at the front of the increasingly misnamed ‘elevator.’ “You’ll want to move to the front,” he said mildly.
Blinking a little, I stepped to the other side of the elevator, leaning back against the brass plate next to the doors opposite River. “How fast are we going?” I asked.
“Fast enough,” he said. “Being thrown across the car at full speed would not be wise.”
“All right. Good safety tip. Glad we’re on the same page.” I closed my eyes, breathing out. The speed seemed to have leveled off. I tried to gather my thoughts a little. My situation was only beginning to sink in — and the only way I knew to cope with it was through journalism. What had I seen? And what did that mean?
Well, I’d seen an underground hotel. And an elevator that could run horizontally as well as vertically. Which was pretty astounding, really. I’d never seen a lair like this — nothing even close. I knew the Jack was A-list, but this was….
…how much money would something like this cost? Where would he get those resources? How could anyone steal this much money — especially when he spent most of his time killing people, not robbing them?
First things first. Try to get the lay of the land. Understand this place. One thing you learn is to ask the questions your subjects can answer. “You said before you didn’t know why someone would willingly work for the Jack,” I said. “So why are you here?”
River paused for a moment, then turned to show me his back, puling the collar of his shirt down and running his finger along a scar. “Mister Oaknavés likes to ensure the loyalty of his servants,” he said. “I have a rather nasty explosive implanted in my neck. Should I try to leave the premises….”
“It… could be a bluff,” I said, remembering the fake explosive collar Leather had once locked around my neck.
“I have seen the results when someone thought that might be the case,” he replied. “Sometimes, the charge blows the head off. Sometimes it leaves the unfortunate alive as a quadriplegic. It is a gamble. Mister Oaknavés likes gambles.” He looked a bit haunted. “The latter fate is much worse. He hangs them on a wall in a room, with feeder tubes and regular care, and no company except each other. Sometimes, Mister Oaknavés goes in to entertain them with magic tricks. And after being in there long enough, hanging like meat with only the sobs of each other to break the monotony… they come to crave his shows, and beg him to stay and entertain them longer.” He turned, moving his back against the plate again. “Brace yourself. We’re about to stop.”
The elevator’s deceleration hit like a hammer — if I’d been hanging against the back of the wall, which would probably have felt natural, I’d have been thrown into the doors at God knows how fast miles per hour. Maybe that’s some kind of defensive mechanism. Or maybe the Jack O’Knaves is just a dick.
Scratch the latter. There’s no maybe about it.
After feeling like I was going to be compacted into a pancake, the sudden release of pressure came almost as another shock, and I stumbled forward, grabbing the bar to stay upright. Mister River, on the other hand, simply stepped forward, in front of the door, which then opened with the standard ding. I stumbled after him, trying to keep up and look like I hadn’t just gone through a mix-master. Of course, coming after my apparent sedation and throwing up, the multi-G deceleration had reminded me that the food and shower had just papered over how crappy I felt, and my body, stomach and head were happy to remind me now.
Still, that didn’t quite overcome the surreal feeling I got when I stepped out of the elevator. It wasn’t that the surroundings we stepped out into were so weird. It’s that they were so normal. There was a lobby, right down to soft benches and a receptionist’s desk complete with receptionist, right outside the elevator doors. Across from the elevator was a second, with a modern keycard reader next to it. The color scheme was all various shades of cool grey.
There was a woman behind the desk — it was a cool grey marble. She smiled. “Hello, Mister River. Mister Oaknavés is waiting for you over the pit.”
“Thank you, Miss Hoopla. If you’ll follow me, Mister Chapman?”
So I followed him, around the desk and through a door behind. From there, we walked down a corridor more or less made out of glass, with doors on either side. And through that glass–
Men and women, working in and around cubicles, like any office environment you’ve ever seen. They wore polo shirts and slacks or skirts — red polos with white trim, or black with white, or reversed, mostly. Said trim was generally poker related, though I also saw a few roulette wheel Izod style patches, or dice. They were busy, on the phone and on computers — it looked like a number of them were operating as a phone bank, and others were doing… well, office activities.
“What is all this?” I asked, almost in a hush.
“A number of things, really,” Mister River said. “Coordinating activities, both local and across the country or world, for one.”
“All sorts, really. On the one hand, there’s gambling. But there are many places in the world where the sport of gentlemen is restricted, and Mister Oaknavés feels that’s an opportunity. There’s others, of course. He runs a black market of sorts in some parts of the world. And of course, there’s the confidence game.”
Mister River smiled again. It was knowing, and not particularly happy. “All those con-games running all the time. Phishing schemes on the internet. Nigerian princes offering money. Deals too good to be true. You have to understand, Mister Chapman — those offend Mister Oaknavés.”
“Offend? Because… people are being tricked out of their–”
“Oh, perish the thought. Mister Oaknavés believes humanity exists to be taken in by cons. His opinion of the everyday man or woman off the street is shockingly low. However, these tricks and gaffes are unartistic, in Mister Oaknavés’s opinion. They show no respect for the true sting, the well crafted glad-hand. So Mister Oaknavés has a rather large operation devoted to both take the perpetrators for a ride of their own, and to fleece their marks long before the spam e-mail ever gets sent in the first place.”
“Is that how he affords all this?”
“Oh, in part. Mister Oaknavés has a rather… diverse portfolio. But honestly, most of his money is home grown, whether here or in other resorts across the world.”
“Of course. Do you feel that vibration in your feet?”
I stopped walking, and waited. And yes, I did — a rhythmic thumping, without any noise. Just pressure. “What is that?”
Mister River smiled again. “We’re over the pit. You want to know where Mister Oaknavés gets his money, Mister Chapman?”
He turned, and strode forward, reaching two dark doorways at the end of the hall, which he pushed open smoothly. This opened into a lounge area, right down to piano jazz playing — but it wasn’t a VIP room or the like. No, this was clearly a private area of red and green velvet. There were a number of people here as well — more of the men and women in the polo shirts, alongside a few in sequined dresses or pinstriped suits. The far walls were curved, and also made of glass, and as I walked out, I realized we were indeed overlooking a much larger, almost cavernous room.
No, not a room. A casino.
I said earlier that he had made his hotel area into a fake casino. I realized now there was nothing fake about it. Oh, I couldn’t imagine we were in Las Vegas, but this was as casino as you got. There were flashing lights down below, and racks upon racks of slot machines. There were table games set up on every side, and fabulous, beautiful women dancing on bars from inside cages. Bars where men and women in blood red tuxedo shirts with white accents mixed drinks. And the people — all the people. Thousands of them — brought in from all over, maybe? How could he get away with this? This had to be underground — literally underground, if the elevator ride had been any indication.
Did the people down there know that as they fed coins into the slots, they were funding the Jack O’Knaves? If not, would they care if they did?
“You say he has more than one of these places?” I asked River, almost breathlessly.
“Oh my yes, Mister Chapman. The Dispater’s Vault resorts can be found on every continent except Antarctica. If one is just wealthy enough, just hungry enough for a certain kind of thrill, he can find himself on an invite list that’s utterly exclusive.”
“Exclusive?” I asked, looking at the mass of humanity down there, feeding the machines, crowding the tables and slapping bills on the bar. “How exclusive could it possibly be?”
“As exclusive as anything needs to be, m’boy!” I heard from behind me — a voice of cheer and joy that sent ice straight down my spine. “You can hand out free tickets to everyone you see and still call it exclusive, if you know the secret.”
I turned slowly. It was him, all right.
“Mister Oaknavés, I presume?”
The Jack grinned. “As always, Mister Chapman.” His tuxedo coat was off, his collar loosened, his own blood red silk shirt sleeves rolled part way up. He had a cigarette in his mouth, though from the smell I could tell it wasn’t tobacco. It wasn’t marijuana either, though. If anything, it smelled like one of those herbal blends Hollywood stars smoked in movies when the part called for cigarettes they refused to smoke. Trey was next to him, wearing one of those polo shirts — hers was red, with her three hearts up over her own heart in a triangle pattern. She also wore white slacks she looked poured into. On the other side was a dark skinned man in a purple and black suit, with four white clubs on his own lapel. Cater, out of uniform. “Glad to see you up and around. I was beginning to think you couldn’t hold your chloroform.”
“Mister River got me sorted out,” I said, carefully. “So… what’s the secret you were telling me about?”
“Hm? Oh — exclusivity. Well, that’s simple, m’laddo. The secret is to make the recipient feel special when you invite him.” He walked next to me, looking down. “All those sheep down there, happily giving me all their cash as quickly as they possibly can. Not a one of them would walk into an OTB parlor. But each and every one of them was approached quietly — was informed they had reached a certain place in their life where they deserved the chance to walk in the doors of Dispater’s Vault. Was allowed to feel like their neighbors wouldn’t ever be let into a place like this.” He shook his head, taking a drag off that fake cigarette. “The first time they show up, it’s because they need to know. They have to experience this… special place for themselves. The second time, it’s because they didn’t get to see enough, and they liked the rush. By the fourth or fifth time, there’s no going back. They need Dispater’s Vault. They need the indulgences we give them. They need the illicit thrills. And they need to know that no matter how their lives go to Hell, they’re still special.”
“Astounding,” I murmured, and if I sounded impressed, it was because I was. “So why commit crimes in the first place? Why not just live off of this?”
He laughed — a rich, full laugh. Not his trademark, mind, but it was still an affectation. “Oh Mister Chapman, there’s so many good ways to answer that question. I’d ask kind of point blank if you thought any of what you saw was legal, but that’s just being obstinate, isn’t it?” He clapped me on the shoulder, which made me wince — like I said before. I was still in a lot of pain. “But honestly, that’s not why we’re here, is it?”
“Aren’t we? If I’m not going to ask about you motivations, why have me interview you in the first place?”
Mister River arched an eyebrow, but the Jack just laughed again. “Oh, you’ll have plenty of time for that, Mister Chapman. I intend for you to have unrestricted, full access to grandest, most exquisite attraction ever seen on stage, screen or back alley card table — me.” He clapped my shoulder again. “Just not today. I’ve got work to do — there’s never enough hours in the day!”
“So… what am I supposed to do? Hang out in the casino?”
“Hang– hah! Don’t be ridiculous, Mister Chapman — you’re not on that list! Be happy we’re comping you for your room! No, you’ll have plenty to do — plenty to see! After all, if you’re going to write a book about me you need to have more than bits and pieces of my own reminiscences. Those might be the most interesting bits, of course — but without a proper foundation, you can’t build a house.”
“So… you’re letting me wander around?”
“Not unchaperoned, of course. I can’t imagine you’d stay for the sheer journalistic joy of it. I’m not making that mistake again.” I thought to ask what he meant, but thought better of it. “No, you started off with Mister River, which I have to imagine was illuminating. He’s such a good man that way. But of course, he’s just making the best of a situation I’m sure he thinks is bad — you can ask him all about it some other time. He’ll be seeing to your food and such, so you’ll have plenty of chances to ask him this and that.”
“I could just shadow him during the day–” I started to say — I’ll admit it. I wanted to stick close to River. I had no idea if he’d help me out if things went south, but even if he didn’t, he seemed like an unusually decent sort for where we were, and I could tell he had no love for the Jack. I’d have my best opportunities to let the outside world know I was here or escape entirely with him, I was sure. And even if not — I got the feeling he’d answer my questions pretty much straight.
“Oh no no,” the Jack said. “Mister River’s way too busy for that. The next thing you know, he’d burn my soup, and then I’d be eating burnt soup before bed and then I’d have to tear his tongue out and feed it to his wife where he could see, and I’m not doing that again either. No. We’ll assign you someone better… someone…” he looked around. “Someone like Trey!”
The redhead blinked. “What? But boss — you’ve got that gig at the Greystone Exchange!”
“I know, I know, Trey — I’m taking Kick and Stick.”
“Kick and Stick?” Trey had flushed. She was legitimately furious. “Those bitches can’t make it through a patter without screwing a line and you know it, Boss!”
“You’re right I know it, but what can I do, huh?” He leaned closer. “Deuce is dead, remember? I’m not going to cut half the act because you think you can solo.”
“So I’ll do it with Kick! It’d be better than–”
“Whether or not Kick and Stick are crap compared to you is academic, my dear, sweet Trey. They’ve practiced together. They’re going to be better with each other than either one would be with you. That’s the short and the long of it.”
“So… that’s it?” She was almost trembling, like she was going to cry. “I’m washed up? I’m done?”
“Done? Oh, no no no no no. Look, what you need is a new partner. A new Deuce. And you know what — I’m going to let you find her.”
Trey blinked. “Really?”
“Really.” He put an arm around the redhead’s shoulders. “You’re going to know better than anyone who can fit Deuce’s bloody leotard, my dear. You’ll know who can be trained, who can be trusted. You know better than anyone else what kind of assistant I need and can trust. I need you to do this, Trey.” He looked in her eyes, intensely. “Can you? Can you do this for me, Trey?”
“I… of course, Boss,” she half-whispered. “Of course I can.”
“That’s my girl.” He winked. “So. Go with Chapman here. Get him some food. Show him around. Have him follow you as you go about recruiting for the new Deuce. And answer his questions. Hell, do whatever he says–” he tossed me a wink and a leer that was supposed to be ‘knowing’ and came across as ‘creepy’ “–so he can get everything he needs. Then, he can interview me later and then you and the new Deuce can join me by my side. All right?”
Trey looked over at me — a look filled with absolute disgust. But she then smiled, and looked back over. “All right, Boss. I’ll let him tag along.”
“Do more than that, dear. Look after him. He’s your responsibility.” The Jack looked back at me. “You’re in great hands with Trey,” he said. “Now — I’ve got to go get ready — not to mention run through the patter with Kick and Stick. You have no idea the sacrifice I’m putting myself through by giving her up even temporarily.”
“I appreciate it,” I said, glancing back at Trey. She had her professional face back on, but somehow made it clear how little she wanted to be anywhere near me. “But you said she had to do anything I said. What if I told her to help me escape?”
The Jack laughed. “By all means, tell her that!” He said. “I heartily recommend it. After all — even if you don’t make it out of here, I promise you’ll get a bang out of the experience!”
He turned away, walking with his entourage. Mister River looked at me, a slightly sad look on his face, then turned and followed. Trey was watching him go, a clear look of longing on her face, before turning back to me, face crinkling in distaste. “Well. We should get some coffee, and then I need to start looking for a partner. You coming?”
I didn’t answer her right away. The Jack’s last words were still ringing in my ears, and I suddenly felt like my face had gone numb. I remembered getting up — all the aches and the pains. I remembered being thrown to the back of the elevator, with the jolt of pain in my neck. I remembered its echo when the Jack clapped me on the shoulder.
Slowly, I reached up, and felt along my neck — there, in the fleshy bit right above my spine, I felt it. A wound, very small, still sore and clearly stitched up.
Somehow, I knew there wasn’t silly putty involved this time.